The Original Phantasy Star Series Ranked
Phantasy Star, Sega’s flagship RPG series, has taken on a new life in the 21st century. Since 2000, the franchise has been defined by MMOs, as part of the Phantasy Star Online sub-series. But way back into the 1980s, Phantasy Star represented a different sort of role-playing game, one that brought a fledgling PC genre to home consoles. Sega’s relative backseat to Nintendo means that, as popular as they were and are, the original Phantasy Star games are not at the very top of the conversation about best RPGs of their era: the years from 1987 to 1993 that the four original series games were released. Now, some diehard PS fans will definitely disagree with me there, but the fact remains that Phantasy Star is not at the echelon of a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Quest, say. That’s in terms of both quality and renown, but regardless, Sega’s foray into expansive turn-based adventures should not be overlooked, both for their historical value and their improvement on a growing genre. Omitted from this ranking of the “original Phantasy Star series” are of course the games that followed PHANTASY STAR ONLINE (2000), but also the Japan-exclusive spin-offs PHANTASY STAR GAIDEN (1992) and PHANTASY STAR ADVENTURE (1992). Otherwise, this list is going to be pretty straightforward.
All games developed by Sega.
#4 — PHANTASY STAR (1987)
Phantasy Star started on the Master System, Sega’s 8-bit competitor to Nintendo’s NES. The series’ first game was one of the first JRPGs for consoles, or at all, and it has been commended then and now for its pioneering elements. One of my favorites of those elements is PHANTASY STAR’s unique setting, a combination of fantasy and sci-fi aesthetics that contribute to a Dune- or Star-Wars-like feel. The cast of characters are unique, and the story that unfolds with them is relatively compelling, especially for the time. PHANTASY STAR’s graphics are also notable, which include some pretty detailed sprite work in combat encounters as well as expansive 3D-looking first-person dungeon crawling. But that’s where my problem with PHANTASY STAR comes into play: it’s simply a bit too challenging for me. Like many RPGs of its era, how you’re meant to progress in the game is obscure to the point of frustration, and the turn-based combat, while strong, requires too much grinding for my taste. PHANTASY STAR is without a doubt a landmark game and, in spite of my complaints to the contrary, fun to play today. It pushes back a bit too much, however, for me to fully immerse myself in it.
#3 — PHANTASY STAR II (1989)
From here on in, Phantasy Star is a Genesis series. The first installment of this era, PHANTASY STAR II, came out within a year of the Genesis’ (or Mega Drive as it was otherwise known) 1988 release in Japan. As such, its 16-bit graphics aren’t as impressive as those to come, as developers refined their touch. But right away, it’s clear that PHANTASY STAR II is a visual upgrade. I’ve mentioned that I really appreciate the series’ aesthetic, but I’ve also felt that some of the sprites and colors on the overworld are a bit too simplistic, and that’s still felt strongly in II. Still, it’s that battle experience that stands out visually, and this time, it’s experienced outside of dungeon crawling moments and in third-person. If the gameplay part of that battle experience isn’t an incredible adjustment from the first game, it’s only because the bones were preserved and are still very much strong. I felt that character progression and upgrades were made more clear for PHANTASY STAR II, even as there were still some difficulties in navigating its world(s). Still, explanations and clues (perhaps benefitting from a more effective English translation) are more readily available, and are woven into a great story. Its premise picks up 1,000 years after the events of the first Phantasy Star game, and presents a cool evolution of the Algol star system that is the original series’ home. The wider scope of PHANTASY STAR is brought into epic scale for II, as the Genesis’ capability for greater cartridge storage means that the game is longer, and it benefits from that. PHANTASY STAR II contains some pretty dark moments and bold storytelling for a game of its or any age, and the exploration of its world through now-standard JRPG mechanics make it a worthwhile adventure.
#2 — PHANTASY STAR III: GENERATIONS OF DOOM (1990)
This time, I’ll start with story: PHANTASY STAR III: GENERATIONS OF DOOM once again takes place across a large space of time. The ultimate connection of what appears to be an unrelated, more medieval setting to the Phantasy Star universe is really creative. And that connection, or the aspect of Phantasy Star’s extensive timeline, is woven into the gameplay itself. PHANTASY STAR III continues and supports the JRPG systems set forth by the first game (with some tweaks here and there), but it enriches things by following the story and playable characters across three generations. You choose one of two women to marry in two sections of the game, resulting in different lead characters in the next section, each with their own combat specialties. Finally, this generations system leads to varied endings, always a cool aspect of RPGs. The look and feel of PHANTASY STAR III are changed somewhat from the previous two games, such as in that aforementioned fantasy focus, and that’s been noted as due to the change in development teams. Indeed, this game is often seen as a step back from its predecessors. I, on the other hand, think PHANTASY STAR III is a bold variation on storytelling and progression precedents (for example, I think it’s easier) not only set by the PS series so far, but also other RPGs of the time.
#1 — PHANTASY STAR IV: THE END OF THE MILLENNIUM (1993)
PHANTASY STAR IV: THE END OF THE MILLENNIUM came after the biggest gap between PS games (at more than three years after III), and ended up being the final entry in the original series. Like III, reception to it was also mixed, but as you can see it, I don’t agree with that ultimate assessment. Look, I’m not a Phantasy Star diehard or an RPG purist. I like challenge in my games, but I don’t want to feel totally lost or like I’m butting my head against a wall in combat. As was standard for each successive game in the series, PHANTASY STAR IV was more intuitive in its story progression and required less grinding. In terms of that story, IV actually takes place in between II and III, focusing more strongly on the events of II and the state of the Algol system. Once again, PHANTASY STAR IV proved the series’ ability to tell a unique sci-fi story, this time augmented by anime-style cutscenes. Combination techniques enrich the game’s combat, and there aren’t many complaints I can assign to its familiar turn-based system. In a way, for all of its nuanced improvements, the original Phantasy Star series was pretty consistent in its approach to gameplay and worldbuilding. In presenting this ranked list as I have, which may have some “hot takes” among PS stans, I’ve tried to illustrate the continuing appeal of the Phantasy Star games as it progressed out of the primordial era of obtuse RPGs into the mildly more modern days of the early ’90s. PHANTASY STAR IV, at its core, is not some radical departure from any other game before it. But time after time, the teams that worked on the series were able to streamline the gameplay experience for this noob while deepening its universe’s lore, character development, and plot twists. PHANTASY STAR IV is the culmination of a groundbreaking run of RPGs, and the game I would most heartily return to over its predecessors.